image from Huffington Post

Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.

Graham Brown-Martin
Learning {Re}imagined
6 min readDec 19, 2016


The words of the late Joe Bower, a teacher

In December 2014 I had the privilege to be been invited to attend and give a talk at the UNESCO Chair in Education and Technology for Social Change hosted by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona. It was a small group but the conversations were fascinating and the participants super engaging. It was here that I met Joe Bower, a teacher from Red Deer, Alberta in Canada.

I first met him at the speakers dinner where he grabbed my hand by introduction and told me that he was the only teacher at the dinner. I liked him immediately and we became conference hang out buddies. This was even before I had the pleasure of hearing his address at the meeting. This was a man who was passionate about his craft.

I want to remember Joe by offering you some of his words and to encourage you to listen to his talk.

So here are just a few of the gems:

“What do we say to kids, how do we work with them?

Let’s dive into this. I’ve had some people, when I tell people, that I don’t grade students, there’s no tests or grades in my class. It’s almost like they get the impression that I hate assessment.

I don’t hate assessment, but I want to reclaim the language. Technocrats have hijacked education. Bureaucrats as well. They’ve stolen our language.

Assessment has been bastardized into meaning measurement. It’s not the same thing. Assessment is not measurement. I assess my students every single day, but it’s not in what is maybe the conventional sense. Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.”

Thinking about education from outside of the goldfish bowl

“Two young goldfish are swimming in the water, and they are swimming together and the come across an older goldfish. The older goldfish says to them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish just keep swimming. Finally, one of the younger ones, after the old goldfish is long gone, turns to the other young one and says, “What the hell is water?” I think school is the water. We’ve been in it for so long, we don’t see it. We don’t even know it’s there. We’re on a form of autopilot where we just do it, but we can’t even describe it, because we’re so used to it.

I want us today to pluck ourselves out of the water and look at it for what it is, because I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fishbowl or looked through water, but it changes your perspective. It bends the light. It refracts the light. It’s going to change your perception, whether your in the water or out of the water. I want to get out of the water for a little bit, and let’s take a look at it. Let’s take a look at what this fishbowl of school has been doing to us. I think there’s things we can change. If I had to simplify sort of a shift. I think what we’re used to is being passive, we’re isolated, it’s competitive. School is being delivered to us, and it’s quite standardized. “

What is it that we mean by assessment?

“The route word for assessment is actually “assidere”, which actually translates to, “sit beside”. It’s important to understand the root of this. To sit beside implying that the teacher and the student would actually spend time together, getting to know one another.”

On motivation

“There’s two kinds of a motivation, but they are inversely related. If you grow a child’s extrinsic motivation, their intrinsic motivation goes down. My blog is called, For the Love of Learning. If we actually want to encourage people to have a love for learning, then we need to start taking this seriously and looking at what the research tells us, because sometimes it’s quite counter-intuitive.

We might say we want to give grades so kids know where they stand. Well, grades constitute an extremely primitive form of feedback. It doesn’t tell you how to get better and it doesn’t tell you what you’ve done well. If we really want to look at the research and the science behind grading, it’s a horrendous way of providing feedback. It’s a conversation. Me telling you you’re a B, doesn’t tell you anything, other than it might grow your ego. What replaces grading?

I have come to see what Jerome Bruner, an American psychologist said, has become my teaching mantra and that is, “Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment, but as information. I hang this in my classroom to remind me, but also to speak to the people who come in my room, what frames the mindset in my classroom. “Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment, but as information.” For me, that is a very powerful mindset and shift for how a classroom should be structured. “

On trusting teachers

“People will ask me, “Well, how do you assess?”

We need to start trusting teachers. There is absolutely no substitute for what teacher’s see and hear every single day they teach, and they work with children while they’re still learning. Quite frankly, if you’re telling me you need a test or a grade to find out what the kids are learning, my response or question back to you is, what have you been doing? Have you not been working with them? Should you not have observed the learning while they were learning?

If you haven’t then my question stands, what have you been doing? If you’re a parent that needs tests and grades to know what the children are doing, what have you been doing? Have you not been talking with them? My children I teach for 10 months out of the year, 5 days a week. I see them sometimes up to an hour or to 2 hours a day. That’s a lot of time over 10 months. Our observations we need to start trusting, they just don’t fit on bar graphs, but that’s okay.

I would argue that some of the most important things that we do in schools or in life, is extremely difficult to measure and maybe impossible to measure, but that’s okay. Everything that’s important can still be observed and described. That’s assessment.

For parents or for the bureaucrats, I don’t understand the idea of inspectors. We don’t have school inspectors in Canada. That concept is quite foreign to me. If you want to know what’s going on as a parent, the best evidence if you want to know about children’s learning, their learning is the evidence. We have to stop reducing it to tests and grades. It always conceals more than it ever reveals. Let the learning speak for itself.”

Joe Bower passed away on Friday January 1st 2016 age 37.

Hear Joe’s talk here:

With pictures here:

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